The Best (and Worst) Cheap Telephoto Lenses: A review

Picture of a Canada Goose taken with a Tamron telephoto zoom lens.

This is EXACTLY why you need to be careful what telephoto lens you buy. I took this photo with the Tamron 200-500mm lens. The image quality is a disaster (Click to enlarge).

A long telephoto or supertelephoto lens is generally very expensive.  For example, Nikon’s 500mm f/4 lens costs about $8,500.  If you missed it, I wrote a post about a month ago explaining why the “pro” telephoto lenses are so expensive.  Still, photographers want the extra reach of a long zoom lens without needing to sell a kidney or pawn off a first-born child.  The following is my review of the cheapest telephoto zoom lenses on the market.  Certainly, there are other lenses that could fit into this category, but I consider these to be the most popular choices among photographers.

Cheap Telephoto Zoom Lenses for Nikon

Nikon 70-300mm – This $500 lens is actually quite good for the price.  It is sharp, has a convenient zoom range, and includes image stabilization.  This is probably the most popular telephoto zoom in Nikon’s line-up of lenses. You can check the current price of this lens on Amazon here.

Nikon 80-400mm – It has been rumored for two years or more that an update to this lens is imminent, but we haven’t seen it yet.  The Nikon 80-400mm lens is quite outdated.  It is not sharp, slow to auto-focus, and is drastically over-priced.  I rented this lens a little while ago for a shoot in SW Florida, you can see a sample image taken with this lens here.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon here.

Cheap Telephoto Zoom Lenses for Canon

Canon 70-300mm – The Canon 70-300mm is quite similar in terms of quality to the Nikon 70-300mm lens.  This popular telephoto zoom lens offers good image quality at a great price point.  Check the current price on Amazon here.

Canon 75-300mm – This is the perfect lens for new photographers on a budget who still want to be able to zoom in on the action.  At a price of only $150, this is a bargain.  While this lens does not offer image stabilization and the sharpness is nothing more than acceptable, it is a lightweight and inexpensive alternative for Canon photographers who need a bit more zoom.  It’s not much of a photo, but here is an example picture that I took with this lens.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon.

Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens – Like the Nikon 80-400mm lens, this lens is not cheap.  It costs approximately $1,600; however, I included this lens in the list because it is cheap when compared to the pro level telephoto lenses mentioned in the introduction.  This lens is probably the best telephoto lens on this list, though it is also the most expensive.  However, I have found the image quality of this lens to be slightly less than that of other L-series lenses.  This is a push-pull lens, which increases its likelihood of getting dust inside the lens.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon.

Third-Party Cheap Telephoto Lenses (Generally available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony DSLR cameras)

Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM Telephoto Lens – No this isn’t a typo.  This lens and the next lens on this list have similar names, but they are very different lenses.  This lens costs about half what the newer version of this lens costs, but it is still a great lens.  Here’s a link to the Nikon version on Amazon.  Here’s a link to the Canon version on Amazon.

Tamron 200-500mm – I was recently given the opportunity to spend a day testing out lenses with Tamron.  I was very impressed with one or two of their lenses, but this lens was shockingly horrible.  It’s a slow lens, the autofocus was terrible, and the image quality was a pure disaster.  Seriously, I can’t get over how bad this lens was.  I’m not even going to include a link for this one to check the price, because it is so terrible that I wouldn’t wish this lens upon any photographer.

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Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.


    1. Author

      Robert, you’re probably right. I was pretty harsh on the Tamron 200-500mm lens. I’m glad to see that you’re happy with the lens, but I think it is unfair of Tamron to make such an inferior lens and charge unknowing consumers $1,000 for the purchase. Tamron makes a few great lenses, but I was very disappointed in this one. Glad to see that you like it.

    2. Yeah, I had the Canon 75-300mm for awhile. When I go back and look at the images I took with that thing, I can’t believe soft it was. I can live with a slow lens, and I can even live with poor autofocus. This lens has issues that can’t be overcome in post. If you’re going to be $150 for it, I think you’re better off getting a little point and shoot. Your pictures will be better and it will take up a lot less room in the camera bag.

  1. Thanks for the great post and blog. I find this type of information quite helpful for someone that is interested in learning more about photography and experimenting with different types of lenses but at the same time trying to balance a budget. I’d love to see more posts like this and your recommendations for budget conscious hobbyists looking for other lens types like primes, wide angle etc.

  2. I normally shoot with the Canon 70-300mm and am pretty pleased with the results,especially when using it for portraits. For wildlife it is good but not as ultra sharp as I would like. A few months ago I rented the new Canon 70-30mm L lens which sells for around $1600-the sharpness is fantastic on this lens but it is not any ‘faster’ then the less expensive version. I would love to own it but as good as it is I don’t quite think it is worth an extra $1,0000.

  3. I was thinking of checking out the Tamron 200-500mm lens, glad I found your review. I’ve tried other Tamron lenses in the past and wasn’t to impressed. I thought I just had a bad copy but now I’m not so sure.

  4. Most sites I’ve seen review the Sigma 150-500mm on par and sometimes better than the 50-500mm, for almost half less. Worth a look I think =)

    I’m considering it for a surfing/birding lens down the road.

    1. I have the sigma 150-500 go and check moon pict at wiktorias photos facebook taken with kenko 2x extender, maybe slightly too slow shutterspeed. ISO 6400 or maybe 3200 on Canon EOS 5 mark ii. I find it with good image quality at up to 400 mm, especially if stopped down 1-2 steps (which in return needs good light condition) – but at the far end of 500 mm it drops a bit in sharpness. pict processed in Lightroom.

  5. Nobody mentioned the Canon 70-200/F4L ??

    Fast, light, sharp, silent, internal zooming, and under $700. No, there is no IS. You’ll pay $500 extra for that. This is about “cheap” lenses right? I don’t think there is a cheaper “L” lens in Canon’s catalog.

  6. Jim, I’m the Robert who posted the first comment back in July. You’ll be happy to hear that iin the end, I say the error of my ways and dumped my Tamron 200-500 and upgraded to a Canon 100-400L IS USM. Worth every cent.

  7. I was fallowing this site but I think I’m done now title and content just not linning up cheap and only 1 lens under $500 mentioned and you pick the most exspnsive lenses from 3rd partys? both sigma and tamron make 70-300mm lenses.

    1. I live in Sweden, so we have bad dayligh conditions now, but as it gets better in february with snow – I’m planning to post a test between Canon 70-200/4L + 2x extender against Sigma 150-500/5.6-6.3 (set att 400,, because this lens drops quite a bit in all aspects at its upper focal length). Check Wiktoria Photos on facebook for the post in february

  8. I disagree with you on the tamron 200-500 lens review and I am probably not the only one. I have the lens and have taken good photos with it. Sometime I guess it just depends on the photographer.

  9. I am astonished at this review. I bought this lens a month ago based on other, kinder reviews and found that it was exceptional. Even out at 500mm (485mm actually) the IQ was as good as my Canon 300mm f4 L. The tests were real world, small birds in the trees. Sky was overcast and subjects 50 – 80 feet away. Six of the 15 images were printable after heavy crop. Handheld as well. Maybe I was lucky and got a good one but I would recommend this to anyone

  10. hello everyone , well i have nikon d3200 body with nikkor 55-300mm vr lens. i wanna upgrade my lens. i have read several review to decide. cant yet, pls help me .

  11. I have Tamron200-500. It does. OK. However, it needs to get fixed not due to its fault. I was looking at Tamron 150-600 for Nikken or waiting for the new Sigma. Any comments about this lens.

  12. Delighted with my Canon 100-400.Thinking of upgrading to newish 150-600 Tamron [nearly all reviews good to very good so far, unless someone out there has other views]. However,just wondering whether one can continue upgrading [wildlife] without beginning to start losing things like AF and IS [Price rules out Canon/Nikon]

  13. hello guyz! I had already gone through your page. but I want To ask that I have canon 700d with Canon 50mm f/1.8 its good but to cover an wedding event I need an good and cheap zoom lense.please tell me the cheapest lense for canon 700d,canon’s or any third party lense.

  14. The problem is, for telephoto, you can’t get the performance needed, for cheap. The 300mm Nikon and Canon lenses, are great for their price, unless you get a Sigma or Tamron 2nd hand, for practically free. But for serious photography, I’d recommend a 70-200.

    Also, Nikon, seems to have a gap for the enthusiast/hobbyist who wants to shoot wildlife. There are no affordable good quality 400-600mm lenses.

    If I was an aspiring photographer, doing all-round photography. I would go for a slightly older 2nd hand Canon eos D60/D50/d700/d650 with Canon EF 50 f/1.8 or 1.4 and a used CanonEF 70-200L, or the newer Tamron 70-200 in a pinch . This would cover a variety of focal lengths and be relatively affordable:
    EOS D60 and D700 have a great sensor that gives decent quality even in low light with high iso. The 50mm lens is a bargain and a great allrounder. Both 70-200 lenses are fast and sharp, they even give acceptable quality with a 1.4 extender, (except in low light).

    If I was going for wildlife/birds/etc. I would opt for the cheapest available eos D40/D50 with EF 50 f/1.8 or maybe f/1.4 and the fixed length Canon EF 400 f/5.6:
    The fixed length 400 lens is great, and can be found 2nd hand for a reasonable price. It has a faster AF, better quality and is lighter than its zoom counterparts (OEM and non). The D40 is a decent starting point and a good learning tool. If you really get into shooting, update to a D60 or D70. If not, a D40 retains what little value it has, quite good. So you can sell it for a marginal loss/profit.

    The newest telephoto zooms 500+ from Sigma and Tamron are good, but at the price EF 400 f/5.6 is available. The drawbacks of a non OEM lens + the price difference have made my mind.

    By using OEM lenses, you can update your camera body and rest assured that the lenses work. I’ve had issues with non-OEM lenses working in some but not all of the bodies…

  15. Just a straight 800mm lense,no auto focus,no VR, just hang onto it and focus. $1500.

  16. Hi,
    I have Canon EOS 5D Mark II body and some telephoto lenses. Looking for a new one, about 70 – 300/350/400mm;
    not too high priced but anyway good. The objective should be to agree on all types of shooting; nature, etc.
    Thank you for your advicing.


  17. Hi Jim,
    Say, you mentioned at least twice that Tamron has a few good lense. Would you please share which ones they were.

    Or, are there any cheap telephoto lenses you would consider for mounting “piggy back” on a astronomical telescope for long guided exposures? With this particular form of usage, auto focus, image stabilization and such would not even be used on the lens. I do need even illumination in the corners, no chromatic aberration or field curvature. just a set of filters and my Photo Shop should handle the rest! lol

    Thank you for your time and consideration!

  18. Hi all, I have four older Nikon cams and a new Canon T6i. I shoot far away objects such as airplanes at 3 miles away and farther. T6I with 55-250 STM is good… but not quite the range i desire… my Lumix 63x superzoom FZ70 camera beats the pants off of it, and exceeds range of my old heavy Nikon lenses 1000mm and 500mm I already own (some of these are mirror lens types) , but the sensor produces grainy images and the mirror designs are fuzzy. The new FZ1000 solves this but poor zoom. Alas my Canon with 2x teleconverter is going to be the best route. I shudder at the idea of $1.5k or more for a lens, I can get an APO or ED refractor for the money spent on these big lenses… , just a bit bulky, good IQ should be possible with something like Borg 50- 77ED or Televue Ranger, even a Maksutov ETX 90… optical tube only should cost $300. Any thoughts here?

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